Jacob Kaplan-Moss

A reading list for new engineering managers

Like many engineers, I got thrown into management without any real guidance. I thought management was just telling people what to do. I thought there wasn’t any real science to it; you just needed to feel your way through it. I was wrong: there’s a whole field of study here, and you can learn a lot by, you know, studying!

This is the reading list I wish I’d been given as a new engineering manager. It’s organized roughly in the order that I’d want to have read them. If you’re a new engineering manager: I hope this list helps you succeed.

Nuts and Bolts

These two books cover the very basics, the day-to-day nuts and bolts of being a manager. They cover the basic structures and frameworks that are successful for nearly every person in nearly every organization. If you’re not already practicing one-on-ones, feedback, coaching, and delegation — or if you want to check that you’re doing it effectively — these are the books for you.

The Effective Manager (Mark Horstman)

By the host of the Manager Tools podcast. This covers what Horst man calls "The Trinity": one-on-ones, feedback, and coaching. There’s no excuse for not doing these things well; they’re literally Management 101.

The podcast is good, too (I’m a long-time listener). But at over 800 episodes, the back-catalog is a bit overwhelming these days. The book brings together their key advice into a single place.

Do note that that Manager Tools guidance tends to be highly prescriptive, sometimes overly-so. They present their guidance as the One True Way™, when in fact people are complicated and don’t present a uniform API. Over time I’ve found areas where their guidance hasn’t worked for me. I still suggest giving their advice a try first. It probably works for most people at most organizations, and it’s almost certainly better than just making things up.

The Manager’s Path (Camille Fournier)

At first this covers similar ground to the The Effective Manager, but it’s well worth your time to read both. Fournier is much less proscriptive, and gives a few different options thay may cover a wider range.

Further, The Manager’s Path covers a wider management arc: it covers the entire leadership ladder from manager to director to executive to CTO. At each step of the path, Fournier lays out what’ll change, what activities to start and stop, and the key questions you’ll need to ask along the way. I expect to return to this book often as I step into different roles.

Theory

These are less tactical, more on the management theory side. I’ve found them super-helpful in the long-term, but less valuable right away. They helped me form my own management philosophy, but took a while to translate into direct action.

High Output Management (Andy Grove)

This could almost be in the section above; the chapter on time management and deliberate about use of time immediately changed the way I work. But the rest is less practical, though still quite important. Grove’s points on organization leverage, in particular, have substantially shaped the way I think about my work as a manager.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness (Jo Freeman)

Yes, studying feminism will make you a better manager (and human). You can’t be a successful leader without understanding how power works within organizations, and I can’t think of a better introduction to organizational power than this.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni)

I intensely dislike the anecdotal story-telling style that seems to be in vogue in a certain sector of business writing. So for me to recommend this book, which uses that form, tells you just how valuable it is. As the title suggests this is pretty great if you’re trying to fix a dysfunctional team. But it’s even better when you can use it to help prevent dysfunction in the first place.

Books for common management situations

Not every manager needs these tools, but if you do these are the books to read:

Agile Retrospectives (Esther Derby and Diana Larsen)

Retrospectives are, for me, the most valuable part of agile practice. They’re also tremendously useful in operational roles like SRE or Security. If you need to conduct a retrospective, read this book.

Getting to Yes (Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton)

Sooner or later, you’ll work with people with whom you fundamentally disagree. Successful negotiation will make or break that work. This is the book to for that situation. It’ll also help the next time you need to buy a car, or negotiate your salary!

Change Done Well (Gerald Weinberg)

Once you reach the Director/Executive level, it’s probable you’ll be called upon to drive some sort of organizational change. This is the book I reach for when I’ve needed to do that; it’s guided me well.

Honorable Mention

Ask A Manager (Alison Green)

This just just came out, and I’ve only just started reading it. But I’m comfortable recommending it anyway. I’m a long-time reader of her excellent Ask A Manager blog, and there isn’t anyone better at helping write scripts for tricky work situations. I’ve leaned on Alison’s advice too many times to count.